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INTERVIEW: "Every conflict has an end, and this conflict... has to come to an end after five years" - UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefs the press in Geneva in January 2015.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefs the press in Geneva in January 2015.

INTERVIEW: "Every conflict has an end, and this conflict... has to come to an end after five years" - UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

Peace and Security

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has been tasked with reinvigorating an inclusive political process towards ending the crisis in the country, based on the aims set out in the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, which was adopted by the first international conference on the issue and has been endorsed by the UN security Council.

During the tragic arc of Syria’s conflict, some 220,000 people have been killed, more than one million have been injured, 7.6 million have been displaced and four million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, according to UN estimates.


Mr. de Mistura has described the Communiqué as a ‘roadmap' towards agreement on a new Syria. Among other points, the document calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body, with full executive powers and made up by members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups, as part of agreed principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led political transition.


For the past year, the Special Envoy has been facilitating efforts, in Syria and throughout the region, to bring about a broadly inclusive way forward, including by convening in Geneva in early May a series of in-depth, separate consultations with Syrian stakeholders and regional and international actors. Those consultations, he has said, aimed to ‘stress test’ any willingness of narrowing the gaps in interpretation of the principles contained in the Geneva Communiqué.


In New York this week to brief the Security Council on his latest push to take the aims of the Communiqué forward, Mr. de Mistura spoke to the UN News Centre about the situation on the ground, the role of the international community in helping in the conflict, and his proposal for the next steps in executing his mandate.

UN News Centre: Where are the international efforts to end the conflict in Syria?

Staffan de Mistura: The conflict is going on, there is no doubt about it, but there are also some signs of a political – I would say – convergence regarding the concern that everyone has in the region and beyond about the fact that ISIS/Daesh is moving forward and there is a need to have a  common approach to it. And everybody also, frankly, understands, that you can’t have a coherent fight against Daesh unless there is a political solution, an all-inclusive solution, according to a roadmap that already exists, which is the Geneva Communique. That’s where we are at the moment. There are gains, according to some, and losses, and this has been going on for five years.

We must be optimistic. Every conflict has an end, and this conflict – which is probably the worst conflict in terms of humanitarian consequences in the last 40-50 years – has to come to an end after five years.

Staffan de Mistura: Let’s say it frankly: when we had the Geneva II conference, Daesh was not even on the radar screen. At that time, the roadblock was between what is more important – terrorism and fighting terrorism, which was the position of some, or promoting an all-inclusive political process, which means a different type of situation politically in Syria. There was a block between these two priorities. Now there is no doubt that Daesh is a priority, but at the same time there is no doubt that everybody must and does recognise that you cannot win this conflict against Daesh unless you solve the conflict in Syria and the way to resolve the conflict in Syria is to have a political solution.A political solution means following up, in real terms, what you don’t need to re-invent is the wheel. You just need to push the wheel, and the wheel is the Geneva Communique, which is a roadmap for including the Syrians all the way through a new type of Syria.


UN News Centre: You were recently in the region for a series of meetings with different interlocutors. What did you hear while on the ground there?

Staffan de Mistura: The region is worried. There is a sense of urgency. That sense of urgency has become even more clear now because there is a fear that if Daesh continues to progress, taking advantage of the conflict in Syria and taking advantage of the situation in Iraq, we may suddenly have an empty area, in other words, a vacuum. And that cannot be allowed. That’s why the work now is towards a smooth, controlled but clear and effective transition: a transformation into a new type of political environment. People talk about it in the region and in Syria; what we need to do is make it concrete – and that’s what we have been proposing actually now to the Security Council.

UN News Centre: There is much on the international community’s agenda these days. Have you detected any sense of fatigue in it when it comes to dealing with Syria?

Staffan de Mistura: That’s the biggest danger for Syria and the Syrian people. That’s why it’s important to have a constant reminder of the humanitarian tragedy – which is increasing – and because there is always that danger of fatigue. But we can’t afford it. Syria is not only about Syria – it is about the region, its neighbours. Look at Turkey, look at Jordan, look at Lebanon, which has got as many refugees as if the US would have 100 million refugees suddenly in its own country. And, also, it is becoming the opportunity, perhaps, of a new way of resolving regional problems, not just by proxy wars.


UN News Centre: What is your message to the Security Council?

Staffan de Mistura: The first message is that we are seeing tunnels. We are seeing tunnels of opportunities through regional and international discussions. What we need to produce is light in those tunnels. And the way to do so is to engage Syrians, in particular. Syrians have never been totally involved in what has been mostly a regional and international debate. And that’s why we are proposing four working groups – real working groups – on themes such as security, the future constitution, the political formula for the future of Syria – and proceeding to work on that, because sooner rather than later we may suddenly have to be faced with “Where are we? Are you ready?” and that’s the time when we should be putting it on the table.

UN News Centre: Can you elaborate on these working groups?

Staffan de Mistura: There is a moment in a conflict, even when it doesn’t look like there’s a solution, but you sense, you feel, that the countries in the region and internationally are looking for a formula, a logical formula. You need to prepare for that. And Syrians have always felt that their future should be discussed with them.


So far this has been in international conferences, so now is the time. And we have tested this with our meetings in Geneva, where we have met with more than 200 different Syrian entities. They have a lot to say and there is a lot in common among them. They want the unity of their country, they want the integrity, respect and dignity of their country, they want their territory and the borders to be respected, they want respect for minorities – and they don’t want terrorism.

But they also want a new government. A government which includes everyone, and which will apply an international approach to democracy, to the rule of law and so on. All of that is, in a way, included in the Geneva Communique, which has been the only roadmap agreed upon about three years ago but nothing has happened on it. 

So the idea is to establish four working groups of Syrians to start talking and working – helped by the UN, otherwise it won’t work – in the direction of each of the themes, which  could be part of the future architecture of Syria once there is a political agreement.


One is the humanitarian issue, which means access. People are requesting a format through which access can be guaranteed fo) many things: medicines, humanitarian aid, food.

Another one is security. At a certain point we have all learnt that we cannot repeat the mistakes of Iraq, or Libya, or Somalia even. Actually, if Syria continues, that could be a combination of all three, God forbid. So what you have to do is maintain the institutions. But, of course, the institutions without blood on their hands and with certain rules of the game in place.

And there is, of course, the mother of all issues: the political process. And that means how to get into a [political] transition, through a transitional governing body, but do so in a way that you are not actually producing an immediate shake-up, rather, a scenario where you are getting, gradually but clearly, to a different political scenario, where everyone is included. All that can be part and should be part of this working group, so that when the right time comes – and it could be any time, because things are happening, both politically and militarily –  the working groups would be ready.


UN News Centre: Your service with the united Nations has seen you working in some challenging political environments – including Iraq and Afghanistan. How doe Syrian compare?

Staffan de Mistura: I have been with the UN for 42 years, and I have never seen such a cynical series of reasons for which a conflict like this one, which could have been solved, has been going on for five years, with 220,000-240,000 killed, one million wounded and four million refugees. But, at the same time, I’m also realizing that if there’s one institution that cannot abandon the Syrians, it’s the UN.

We have had many attempts, and we’ll continue pushing, because at the end of the day, what is happening at the moment, is that we are having a whole generation of Syrians, young kids, who have seen only war, and this is getting worse. And there is no military solution. None at all. Everybody knows it, the government and the opposition, and everybody who is involved on both sides.


UN News Centre: Is there any reason to be optimistic about the efforts currently underway to end the war?

Staffan de Mistura: We must be optimistic. Every conflict has an end, and this conflict – which is probably the worst conflict in terms of humanitarian consequences in the last 40-50 years – has to come to an end after five years. We are seeing signals that not only are people exhausted – and we knew that – but also governments, countries, players and stakeholders are getting tired. And above all the feeling is that in all this, the only one that is gaining ground is Daesh.